vp19 (vp19) wrote in carole_and_co,

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The still that ran afoul of the censors

At times here, we've touched upon the censorship battles of the pre-Code era, something Carole Lombard, then deemed a second-tier star, rarely figured into (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/31676.html). There was one notable exception, however -- and it's something few, if any, movie buffs are aware of. That's because it didn't involve footage from a film being cut, but rather a publicity still.

But first, some background:

In late 1933, Joseph Breen, a Philadelphia native, helped assist the motion picture industry over what could and couldn't be shown on the screen, using a code the studios had drawn up in 1930, but one that was rarely enforced. Breen, a conservative Catholic whose papers reveal a virulent anti-Semitic bent, then possessed minimal power. But he clandestinely worked with Catholic bishops and cardinals in Los Angeles and other American cities, as well as the Hearst press, to build a clamor against obscenity in motion pictures that eventually resulted in the formation of a movement called the Legion of Decency.

Hollywood studios, fearful of government censorship during the New Deal (though that was something the Roosevelt administration really wasn't interested in), turned to Breen, who painted himself as the man who could quiet potential restlessness in the important urban Catholic moviegoing market. In February 1934, he received more power from the film industry -- not just over films going into theatres, but over publicity campaigns and promotional stills as well.

In the spring of 1934, a few months before the Code was strictly enforced for the following two decades, Columbia released "Twentieth Century," starring John Barrymore and Lombard in an adaptation of a popular Broadway play. Through Howard Hawks' excellent direction and some wonderful coaxing from Barrymore, a new Lombard emerged on screen -- funnier, more assertive and dynamic than she'd ever been before a camera. "Twentieth Century" was a moderate hit, although its Broadway milieu had little appeal outside big cities.

Among the publicity stills Columbia submitted to Breen's office was one that was rejected by Breen and his Legion of Decency and never issued by the studio. However, Barrymore kept a copy of the still, and it finally came to light in a book issued this past October, "Hollywood's Hellfire Club" by Gregory William Mank, which details the antics of Barrymore, Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields and other hellraisers of the day. In terms of pure decadence, the Rat Pack had nothing on these fellows. (For more about this book, go to http://www.amazon.com/Hollywoods-Hellfire-Club-Misadventures-Barrymore/dp/1932595244.)

Carole Lombard's beauty was evident in her thousands of still photographs, and many of them played up her sex appeal, too. But the following picture is arguably the sexiest still she ever made, and as stated earlier, few people are aware of it. Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive, who's either seen or owns virtually every one of the star's publicity pictures, had never run across it; her reaction upon seeing it was, "Holy..." There's a good chance you'll have a similar reaction; if not, get in touch with your doctor.

Without further ado, here's the still...and note that clicking to get to the full-sized version may not be safe for work:

One wonders which more drew the wrath of the moralist Breen: the acres and acres of lovely Lombard leg on display, or the hint of a nipple just above Barrymore's hand. Maybe both were equal opportunity offenders. And perhaps Carole and John knew this picture wasn't going to pass muster anyway, so instead they decided to milk it for all its worth, sort of along the lines of Jean Harlow flashing a topless display "for the boys in the lab" at the end of her rain barrel scene in "Red Dust" two years before.

It should be emphasized that this was a publicity still for the film and not, as far as we know, footage from a deleted scene. Just imagine viewing that sheer expanse of leg, projected on a screen some 50 feet wide in a big-city movie house. The reaction would have been similar to what Jayne Mansfield's character got walking down the street in that memorable scene from Frank Tashlin's 1956 classic "The Girl Can't Help It," only Carole's power comes from the lower half of her anatomy. "She makes grandpa feel like twenty-one," indeed.

Had that Lombard still received wide distribution at the time...well, about a decade later, the great animator Tex Avery came up with a likely response from at least the male half of the population:

Tags: censorship, columbia, john barrymore, joseph breen, legion of decency, legs, pre-code, publicity stills, twentieth century

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