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Good Old Fashioned Censorship: Elaina B. Archer on "Why Be Good?"

Mae West accepts an invitation from Cary Grant in "I'm No Angel." West is featured in "Why Be Good?"
by Dan Lybarger

Director Elaina B. Archer and I have spent a lot of time talking about old movies. While the articles I’ve written about her historical documentaries have usually been pretty short, the discussions we’ve had about them in person or on the phone can run for hours. If you think listening to two film geeks raving about stuff made before the era of sound would be rather dry and tedious, you probably haven’t seen the films in question or known what she has to say about them.

In our most recent conversation, Archer said, “What people don’t realize is that prior to 1935, there were so many exciting films. Because from 1929 through 1939 the studios were fighting the depression just like anybody else, and they were looking at falling into receivership just like a lot of other corporations in this country at the time. And they needed to push the envelope because they needed to keep the films exciting and interesting, and they needed to keep captivating the audience.”

Envelope pushing? While it’s tempting to claim that sex and violence have only recently corrupted films, Archer’s new documentary Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema indicates that the battle over what content is acceptable for movies is far from new.

Why Be Good?, on which Archer shared producing and editing duties with her A&F Productions partner Todd Friedrichsen, looks at how edgy content is as old as the movies themselves. The film is appropriately narrated by Diane Lane, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the steamy Unfaithful.

The Production Code of 1934 prevented filmmakers from showing “Scenes of Passion.” The documentary includes a montage of how filmmakers went around the rules before their draconian enforcement after 1935.

One of the movies featured in the documentary, the rare 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle The Dream, consists of Pickford getting back at her hard-drinking, cheating oaf of a husband (played by her then-spouse, the alcoholic thespian Owen Moore).

“It’s believed, but it hasn’t been proven in fact, that Mary wrote the plot for The Dream. What we used is the scene where Owen Moore comes home drunk, knocks over everything on the table, disrespects her entirely and passes out.

“In his dream, it’s fantastic because all of the sudden Little Miss Mary Pickford, whom we see as the girl with the curls comes strutting into the dining room with tassels on her breasts and a tight dress. She just takes out the liquor and throws back shots right and left, lights up a cigarette and blows smoke right in his face and says, ‘This is what you want. This is what you got.’

“And of course, he’s in shock.

“The happy ending is that he wakes up and finally appreciates his wife and doesn’t take her for granted any more, which I’m sure Mary would have written that ending in,” laughed Archer.

If substance abuse, sex and violence aren’t new to the movies, neither are the attempts to suppress them. For example, before the Production Code, which limited the content of movies, was enforced Mae West became an enormous star for her bawdy wisecracks, which she wrote herself. While audiences craved her films, other institutions found them objectionable.

“The problem, of course, was that you might line up around the block to watch Mae West’s films during the week, but on Sunday you have to sign something in Church that says that you promise not to see her films because otherwise you will be going to Hell,” said Archer with a chuckle in her voice.

“And that was part of the hypocrisy. The Catholic Legion of Decency was formed to squelch these films and to fight against ‘immoral’ content in films. And yet this ‘immoral’ content in films was what was keeping the studios alive and what
was keeping them from going bankrupt. Because this is what the American audiences were craving to see.”

Archer clearly doesn’t approve of censorship, but she does understand why parents might want to shield children from objectionable content. She’s a mother herself.

“I’m a single mother raising my son in an open and honest environment,” she says. “We talk about everything. I think that’s important, and I expose him to the arts as much as possible. I don’t like to hide things from my son. We don’t watch pornography, obviously.

“These days, I think it’s good to be honest with young people. I think it’s good to discuss things and not to hide things. I think when you censor, you damage true conceptions; you allow for misconceptions, and you allow fear to seep into our psychology.”

Many of the films featured in her documentary, however, have not been lost to censorship but simple neglect. One movie profiled in Why Be Good? is the 1931 rarity The Iron Man. It stars a young Jean Harlow but is not on video or DVD and hasn’t been seen on TV.

In that film, Harlow plays an early femme fatale who leads on a boxer while secretly carrying on an affair with another man.

Another now obscure film featured in the documentary is The Lady, starring silent screen luminary Norma Talmadge. Known for glamorous roles, Talmadge’s turn in this film, which hasn’t been seen for decades, could raise some eyebrows.

Archer explained, “Norma Talmadge plays a woman who is wronged by her husband. She finds him cheating on her, and rather than ask her forgiveness, he throws her out in the street. She is pregnant and finds solace in a brothel. It’s the only place that will take her in and not
condemn her or judge her, which is a very interesting statement to make in 1925. She has the baby in the brothel.”

Today we know director Cecil B. DeMille for his massive 1954 sound version of The Ten Commandments. Viewers who venture back into the silent era may find some unexpected content in his movies. For example, in the silent version of the story of Exodus, a young woman dances provocatively around the Golden Calf before she suddenly contracts leprosy, presumably for her sins.

Archer explained, “Cecil B. DeMille felt that if you could show this in The Bible, there’s nothing wrong with showing it on film. If the first eight reels were completely shocking, the audience should be happy to know that by the end of the film, everybody is going to be redeemed, and we’re all going to find truth and morality.”

Because Why Be Good? examines the dangers of censorship, it’s probably not a surprise that Archer received support with her film from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. While Hefner’s publishing empire has been based on his magazines’ occasionally salacious content, he’s also been a consistent advocate of film preservation and has backed documentaries Archer has directed or produced documentaries about Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth and Marion Davies.

“Mr. Hefner is a true benefactor of the arts,” said Archer. “This is our sixth program for him. Mr. Hefner and everybody who works for him respect the artists and allowed us the creative freedom to make the film that we felt made the strongest statement. He of all people does not want us to water down our statement. He really wanted us to show censorship and its dangers and to show censorship and the films from this period in their true form, in their most respectful form.”

In addition to providing money, Hefner also advised Archer to include the fascinating 1933 black comedy Baby Face
, which features Barbara Stanwyck climbing her way to the top of the corporate ladder at the expense of every man in her life, including a gullible drone played by a young, unknown actor named John Wayne.

“He said, ‘Elaina, I feel we are missing something. We are missing Baby Face,” recalled Archer.

To capture the era before the Production Code was enforced in 1935, Archer commissioned original music that mimics the period and a costumed dancer who demonstrates the popular dance steps.

“Mr. Hefner’s former girlfriend Holly Madison (who’s best known for participating as one of the Girls Next Door) was our model,” said Archer. “She was our Jean Harlow. She was Louise Brooks. She was our flapper. Basically we had her in five different costumes.”

Much of the reason Archer enjoys looking into cinema’s past is because it can be a key to the medium’s future. Even as a film student, she tried to explain that contemporary filmmakers can and should use their predecessors’ work as an example.

“I told my colleagues you have to respect the past. You learn from the past. Martin Scorsese says the same thing, and so does P.T. Anderson (There Will Be Blood). These guys were working with a blank slate, most of them.”

Additional Links
A&F Productions

Archer's previous film, Gangland: Bullets Over Hollywood covers a century of movies about wise guys, from Raoul Walsh’s 1915 Regeneration to Reservoir Dogs and beyond.

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originally posted: 12/17/08 14:20:37
last updated: 02/08/09 19:07:30
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