Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.62 .D65 1999
In Pre-Code Hollywood, Doherty reviews the production of film during the years preceding the rigorous enforcement of the Production Code in the 1930s. Chapter ten focuses specifically on the portrayal of foreign or racial minorities, specifically with regard to those topics that relate to the touchy subject of racial mixing, or miscegenation. In one particularly relevant subsection of the chapter, Doherty analyzes pre-Code Orientalism in film, and the exotic allure surrounding the mysterious “otherness” of countries like China. The chapter also gives a detailed account of the way the film was received by internal censors at the Studio Relations Committee, a branch of the MPPDA. Interestingly, censors were less preoccupied with the suggestion of inter-racial romance than they were with the seemingly negative portrayal of Chinese culture in Capra’s film. Ultimately, however, censors actually supported the film’s alleged purpose. Doherty appends to the chapter a letter written by John Wilson (of the SRC) to Will Hays (head of the MPPDA) in defense of the film’s seemingly racist elements, in which Wilson assures Hays that “the whole purpose of the story is the convincing refutation of the foreign opinion of the Chinese characters, and for that reason it is essential that the seeming derogatory remarks be used in the first part of the story.”
This chapter sheds light on the political climate of film-production around the time that Capra was making Bitter Tea. It was interesting to learn that Capra’s film was one of many films of the 1930’s that demonstrate a Western ambivalence towards Eastern culture, such as The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Hatchet Man (1932). These mixed feelings about the East are indeed mirrored by the simultaneous attraction and repulsion experienced by the white missionary character, Megan Davis, towards the attractive and mysterious General Yen. Because of a precedence for this theme in films, it seems unlikely that Bitter Tea’s lack of success was wholly a result of audiences being unexposed to depictions of Eastern cultures in movies, unless the film somehow deviated in a significant way from these other orientalist films.
Doherty’s history contextualizes Hollywood production efforts during its pre-Code era, from the publication of the Production Code in 1930 to Joseph Breen’s rigid enforcement said Code in 1934. Doherty separates the history into different modes of transgression, exploring sexual innuendo in Mae West films, eroticization of foreign and “primitive” cultures in films like King Kong, the alignment of Hollywood with the sympathetic gangster figures particularly in the WB crime films, and the political implications of the social problem film, paying special attention to Chain Gang.
Although Chain Gang used its own portrayal of brutality as a publicity gimmick, Doherty emphasizes theater owners’ hesitation about the picture due to its bleak themes and unhappy ending. ““My personal opinion is that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would do 25% more business if it had a happy ending,” complained a theater owner.” Motion Picture Herald warned the film's producers against portraying the gruesomeness of the chain gang too explicitly. For example, the notorious sweatbox punishment torture device depicted in Sullivan’s Travels and Cool Hand Luke is omitted from Chain Gang’s diegesis. These measures were justified “for fear of alienating a feminine portion of the patronage in particular.” If Chain Gang participated in a historical moment which established political stability during shaky times and fostered a profound alliance between media and government, then – like the film’s failure properly to address racial issues – women’s purported exclusion from its political energy reveals the patriarchal culture it fostered.
During these years, a prevalent freight-train riding youth culture also emerged. Children and teenagers left impoverished homes to ride illegally on freight trains across America. Doherty groups Wild Boys of the Road, a “politically subversive” film from 1933 which explores youth freight train culture, with Chain Gang. He asserts that “adults of the Great Depression understood perfectly why their children were acting up. Given the present, who could blame them for behaving as if they had no future?” From its title, I AM a Fugitive, which engages the present moment, to its temporal overlap with legal struggles over Burns’s extradition, Chain Gang exploits this “futureless” mythos thereby paradoxically enabling the New Deal’s future political success by responding to the public’s bewilderment regarding its own future.