While I am still utterly heartbroken over yesterday’s news of the passing of the incomparable Mary Carlisle, I’m delighted to lighten up my spirits again by writing about my participation in July’s #CleanMovieMonth, hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. The goal for the month was to only watch code-era films or films made between 1934 and the 1960s that followed the strict production code that the Motion Picture Association of America and other Puritans set out in order to regulate what was shown onscreen. This challenge would have been exceedingly difficult for me because I was participating in a number of blogathons over the course of the month, including my own Natalie Wood Blogathon, so I was unable to completely limit myself to code movies. However, I did agree that I would watch as many new-to-me code films as I could and make a list of my favorites once the month was over, so here I am! It’s not too easy to find information on exactly how a film complied with the production code of the time so this list will attempt to focus on squeaky-clean movies that were made during the Hays-code era. Most of them are so innocent that they didn’t even need to try to bend the rules, though I will be touching on any issues that the Hays office had with these movies.
The Kid From Brooklyn (1946)
First up we have The Kid From Brooklyn (1946), an MGM comedy starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. The film chronicles the trials of Burleigh Sullivan (Danny Kaye), a meek and clumsy milkman who is mistakenly believed to have knocked out middleweight champion of the world “Speed” McFarlane (Steve Cochran) after he accosts Burleigh’s sister Susie (played by Vera-Ellen in her second-ever feature film). This isn’t the truth, but boxing promoter Gabby Sloan (Walter Abel) cunningly decides to use the publicity to turn the milkman into “Tiger” Sullivan, a boxing star. At first, Burleigh is hesitant, but after Gabby lies and tells him that boxing will be the only way to earn his crush Polly Pringle’s (Virginia Mayo) affections, we see Burleigh go on a world tour. By some miracle (or in reality some bribery on Gabby’s part), he becomes undefeated, but will he let this newfound fame go to his head and make him believe that he really is the greatest boxer in the world? Will his new career and ego drive away the one person he cares about? I hate to admit it and this may be a wildly unpopular opinion, but this movie made me realize two things: that I truly dislike Danny Kaye’s style, and that I really adore Virginia Mayo’s. I’ve seen multiple films of Kaye’s now including most recently his first, Up in Arms (1944). I have a sincere respect for his work and his charitable efforts, but his comedy just isn’t my cup of tea. Virginia Mayo had made an appearance in Up in Arms (1944) as well, but MGM decided that she simply wasn’t ready for a leading role and gave her the part of one of the “Goldwyn Girls”, a selection of beauties who served as models and dancers in Kaye’s dream sequences, but were really just there for looks. I was really excited to finally catch a Kaye and Mayo vehicle that put her front and center, but Kaye’s drawn-out comedic sequences ruined this movie for me. It’s okay, but Mayo was really the main selling point and the best part of this picture in my opinion and I found myself constantly searching for her just as I had while watching Up in Arms (1944). She’s slowly but surely becoming one of my favorite actresses, but after two tries of watching her onscreen pairings with Danny Kaye, I think I’ll stick to watching her hold her own with better leading men.
Three Smart Girls (1936)
Three Smart Girls (1936) is the first code film that I got the chance to see in July, as well as the one that made me want to detail the code films that I watched over the course of the month. I originally watched it for a different reason, though, as I had the pleasure of discussing the picture at length with fellow film writer Kristen Lopez for her podcast Ticklish Business. I regret to say that due to technical issues the discussion won’t be shared to the site, but I still had a lot of fun talking about classic movies, and I really enjoyed this picture in particular. Three Smart Girls (1936) chronicles the hijinks of Joan, Kay, and Penny Craig (played by Nan Grey, Barbara Read, and Deanna Durbin respectively), three sisters who learn that their absent and divorced father (Charles Winninger) is rumored to wed a spoiled socialite (Binnie Barnes). Against their mother’s wishes, they run away to New York in order to drive a wedge between their father and his girlfriend and stop the wedding, while the two older sisters even find love in the process. This was as innocent as a film could get during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it’s easy to see why debuting fourteen-year-old Deanna Durbin was a smart move for Universal during the code era. She had a heart and voice of gold, and the idyllic setting of her films had no room for anything that would have been protested by the Hays office. In fact, the entirety of Three Smart Girls (1936) revolves around Durbin, as did the poster and trailer for the movie. I had never seen a Deanna Durbin film before this one, and while I certainly didn’t mind her, I’ve never been especially fond of movies that revolve around young children, and this movie made me want to check out some of her later work so I could really form a concrete opinion of her. Conversely, this was by far the youngest I had ever seen star Ray Milland, who played middle sister Kay’s love interest Lord Stewart and watching him as a youthful and attractive romantic lead made me crave more of him in this type of role. All in all this movie has definite rewatch factor and something for everyone. If you’re a fan of Deanna Durbin’s it’s not to be missed, but if you’d rather skip her then you’ll certainly want to skip this film too.
Lucky Partners (1940)
Lucky Partners (1940) is a movie that has intrigued me for quite some time, and after popping up very frequently on my recommended list on FilmStruck, I decided that this theme would give me a great opportunity to give it a go. Very unique in its cast and concept, Lucky Partners (1940) tells the story of caricature artist David Grant (Ronald Colman), an honorable and positive individual who casually wishes beautiful bookstore employee Jean Newton (Ginger Rogers) good luck as they pass on the sidewalk. Soon after this, she’s given an expensive dress by a customer who she delivers some books to, and Jean (a superstitious individual) decides to ask David to split a sweepstakes ticket with her in hopes that her good luck will continue and that they will win. David becomes interested in her and in the proposition, but not before learning that Jean intends to spend her half of the winnings on settling down in the country with her fiance, humble banker Freddie Harper (Jack Carson). David believes that everyone should be able to have fun and see the world before settling down, and he agrees to split the ticket only if Jean agrees to go on an imaginary “honeymoon” trip before she actually marries Freddie. Despite not winning the grand prize, the two still win a substantial amount of money and Jean tags along for a trip that will change their lives forever. Out of all of the films on this list, I think I would go as far as to say that this one likely had the most issues with the production code, despite not being able to find any information to back up my claim. Much ado is made in the film about Jean and David traveling together despite not being married, and you can easily see the effect that the code era has on this movie in particular. The two characters pretend to be brother and sister and share completely separate rooms, and the worst that either of them does to the other is kiss, but even despite this small infraction we see them (spoiler!) getting married at the end of the film, almost as if they had to in order to appease the censors. What bothered me the most about Lucky Partners (1940) was finding out that Ginger Rogers turned down the iconic role of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940) in order to make this movie, but I still found it enjoyable and certainly a product of its time.
Ball of Fire (1941)
This is yet another movie that has been following me around on FilmStruck for some time. While I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival this year, I stopped by FilmStruck’s booth in front of the Egyptian Theatre and watched a small part of Ball of Fire (1941) as I waited in line for the festival’s screening of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Of course, I had heard a lot about what an exemplary film it was, and it had been on my classic movie bucket list for some time both before and afterward, but I was given a swift kick towards finally watching it just last month when I learned that it would be removed from the streaming service. If you haven’t heard of Ball of Fire (1941) before this, it’s about a group of eight professors who have spent years living together and working on writing an encyclopedia. Each professor is focusing on a different area of study, and the youngest, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), is nearly finished with all subjects covering the English language when he meets a truck driver whose modern vernacular makes Bertram completely rethink his article on slang. He soon realizes that in order to complete a full study on the English language, he must do some research on how people speak today, and this leads him to nightclub singer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). He invites her to discuss her way of speaking with him in his home, but she turns his invitation into an indefinite stay when she learns that she’s wanted by the police to testify against her boyfriend, murderer and mob boss Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Will things change when she receives multiple marriage proposals? Which will she accept? I honestly can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finally watch Ball of Fire (1941) in its entirety. I wouldn’t necessarily call it one of the best examples of code films due to some of Sugarpuss’ suggestive costumes, screenwriter Billy Wilder’s gift for double entendres, and the fact that the leading lady spends the majority of the film shacked up with eight single men, but I don’t think the picture outright breaks the code in any way, and we still see a lot of proprieties that were maintained during the code’s reign that we likely wouldn’t see if this film was released today. I wouldn’t consider it as legendary as some others, mostly because I personally wouldn’t rank Gary Cooper or Barbara Stanwyck among my favorites, but it was a great example of Hollywood at its finest and I’m glad that I finally gave it a chance.
Lassie Come Home (1943)
What I said earlier about Three Smart Girls (1936) being as innocent as a film could get during Hollywood’s Golden Age was perhaps not true as Lassie really takes the cake. Does it get more wholesome than Lassie? Surprisingly enough, I hadn’t seen any of the Lassie films before this, and I assumed that even this was a sequel of some sort before watching it. It was really the astounding cast that includes names like Roddy McDowall, Elizabeth Taylor, Elsa Lanchester, and Edmund Gwenn, as well as the righteous nature of Lassie Come Home (1943) that really drew me in and made this a perfect addition to the code lineup. I was even more delighted to learn that this was the first Lassie film ever made, so I was really watching it in order after all! In it, we see the story of the impoverished Carraclough family, including young son Joe (Roddy McDowall) and his mother and father (Elsa Lanchester and Donald Crisp). The family has fallen on such hard times that they are forced to sell Lassie, Joe’s beloved Collie, to the Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). Joe becomes inconsolable at the loss of his pet, and the feeling is mutual as Lassie escapes her new owner multiple times in order to be with Joe. Finally, the Duke has had enough and takes Lassie on a hunting trip hundreds of miles away to Scotland, but Lassie escapes once again and begins a long and arduous trek back to England to her cherished companion. I was utterly impressed by this movie. Of course, the Lassie films have developed a reputation for being far-fetched pieces of fluff, but Lassie Come Home (1943) shows the franchise’s lovable and well-constructed roots. Every single acting performance in it is sublime, including then child star Roddy McDowall and iconic character actor Edmund Gwenn as Rowlie, a tinker and street performer who assists Lassie on her journey. It was interesting to see the likes of Elsa Lanchester and Nigel Bruce completely out of their elements as well, with Elsa trading in her Bride of Frankenstein beehive for flaming Technicolor hair and a harsh attitude, and Nigel portraying anything but his sweet and bumbling oaf persona. I was even more surprised to see Elizabeth Taylor essentially shoved aside in this movie. I expected her role to be a lot bigger considering the height of fame that she would soon achieve, but the film could really have done just as easily without her. If you’re looking for an endearing and significant code film to watch with your family, look no further than Lassie Come Home (1943).