Before May is out, you'll see our regular monthly Carole Lombard "looking back" feature for May 1933, but this week we're examining two long Sunday newspaper articles on Hollywood that ran that month. Tuesday, we looked at kissing; today, what often happens after a kiss (or two, or three, or...)
Yep, it's sex. And since the spring of 1933 was the midst of what we now call the pre-Code era, it was causing controversy. So much, in fact, that syndicated writer Dan Thomas discussed it with two industry notables -- director Cecil B. De Mille and producer Samuel Goldwyn. The finished product ran in a number of newspapers, including the Lima News in Ohio on May 21, 1933:
The quotes from De Mille and Goldwyn both run so long that I sense Thomas didn't go to their offices and actually interview them, but instead requested they type their thoughts on the topic, which Thomas then converted into an article.
The story, called "So The Movies Are 'Getting Away From Sex.' Well, Well, Well!", has its share of intriguing observations. De Mille noted that during the late 1920s, when the U.S. was prosperous and in a good mood, sexy pictures were popular -- and then things changed.
"But a change of conditions also brings a change of thought. Hunger is our first sense, sex, our second. When a man is hungry he seldom evinces much thought in a beautiful woman. He might take to drink but femininity rarely proves attractive."
De Mille also noted that films dealing with hard economic times have to soft-pedal it, since "the public demands diversion, not education." And Thomas pointed out that "in a vast number of recent pictures sex has been played up rather than down."
One of the pictures he referred to was "No Man Of His Own" (seen above) where sex dominates the Lombard-Clark Gable tale. In that and the Jean Harlow films "Red-Headed Woman" and "Red Dust," Thomas wrote sex "has been literally thrown at the audience."
And, as a picture of Claudette Colbert from "The Sign Of The Cross" made clear, "De Mille himself has not yet abandoned the sex motif."
Of Mae West's "She Does Him Wrong," Thomas said the sex angle was "handled in somewhat better taste than the others" (perhaps because West was in her early forties and thus didn't show off skin, as well as that she wrote her own material), but the film was still flaunting sex.
Now the thoughts of Goldwyn, and no, you won't find malaprops here but some thoughtful observations. Sex wasn't necessary in pictures, he wrote, but it would continue to be the foundation for the majority of stories, as "it has since Shakespeare." He added:
"The word 'sex' covers a vast territory. It can be beautiful or it may be ugly.
"I am very much opposed to the type of pictures we ordinarily term 'sex films' and would not produce one if I thought it would make all the money in the world. On the other hand, I believe that sex rightly handled is a decided asset to any production."
Well, Sam, what about the Goldwyn Girls, seen in productions such as "Roman Scandals"?
"While the girls wore scanty costumes, they were attractive and the girls themselves were carefully selected for their beauty and shapeliness, thus making a combination entirely pleasing to the eye."
Romance is important too, Goldwyn noted, but added, "the very basis of romance is sex. ... I believe that while sex is not a necessary element in every film, it is necessary to motion pictures as a whole." (Unlike today, where CGI is necessary for motion pictures as a whole.)
Thomas concluded by noting that some "sex films" were so deftly handled, they were never burdened with the tag. "Practically all of Ernst Lubitsch's films come under this heading," he wrote.
But in the third paragraph of his story, Thomas makes a prediction that indeed came true: "Within another year or two pictures which flaunt sex unnecessarily will be few and far between." However, it wasn't changing tastes or an improved economy that led to the change, but infiltration from within, as Joseph Breen of the industry's Studio Relations Committee -- working clandestinely with religious groups -- helped set up boycotts in early 1934 that led to the imposition of a far tougher Code (as well as an organization, the Production Code Administration, led by Breen himself). It would play a role in Hollywood filmmaking for a third of a century.
To see the Thomas article in its entirety, double-click on each of the images below: