Thoughts On: Her Man (1930)
A prostitute falls in love with a sailor.
Her Man is a fine picture that, as it develops, crescendos into a pre-code masterpiece. Despite its sometimes clunky acting and simple plot, Her Man builds its characters incredibly well and immerses you in a seedy world spectacularly with brilliant direction, fluid and expressive camera work - even long shots that are, considering its time, about as impressive as those in A Touch Of Evil and Goodfellas. Wrapping this all off is, again, considering its time, one of the greatest action sequences ever put to film. What Her Man then stands as a monolithic example of is the short-lived days of the pre-code Hollywood era, an era that shatters all preconceptions of old Hollywood and implies a kind of alternate universe that we can only mourn.
The term "pre-code", as most will know, simply refers to the 7 year period between the introduction of sound into Hollywood as well as the initial proposals for a production code - all in in 1927 - and the enforcement of these MPPC (Motion Picture Production Code) censorship guidelines in mid 1934. "Pre-code" then refers to pictures that were made with a certain degree of freedom; pictures that could be much more sexual, outspoken and violent than even the darkest of the noirs produced in the 40s. We see this in Her Man through the direct implication of prostitution, the constant inebriation, the mixing of ethnicities and cultures (also censored in the code era) and, of course, the huge amount of, sometimes brutal, sometimes fatal, violence that the camera rarely shies away from.
To understand where this code comes from, however, it's best to consider a wider idea of film history in the silent era. In turn, it's best to start way back in the 1880s and look at a figure we've covered quite extensively on the blog: Eadweard Muybridge. As one of the first 'filmmakers' (it is questionable if he was actually making films), he made movies that looked like this...
Often shooting his human subjects semi-nude or completely nude, Muybridge can be seen as an archetype of power in cinema. Whilst some may argue that he abused the power afforded with a 'control' of space and time (that which a motion picture camera represents), it seems very apparent that motion pictures serve peoples' interests and curiosities. This is exactly why some of the first films ever made would be for scientific purposes, for the satisfaction of some shade of voyeurism or even to allow people to marvel at themselves. We see the scientific incentive through figures such as Janssen and Étienne-Jules Marey...
... the voyeuristic (the sexual and the violent) through people such as Muybridge and Edison (his manufacturing company)...
... and the self-obsessed through the Lumières as well as Mitchell and Kenyon...
What some of these early films demonstrate is cinema's capacity for what would later be deemed by the MPPC to be lurid, distasteful, immoral or down-right wrong. This is a subject we have explored in some depth when we briefly looked at the history of Austrian cinema; their first major production company being one called Saturn-Film, which solely produced erotica from 1906-10...
Considering the world of silent cinema only then gives you greater incite into the idea that cinema is design around a human recognition of godly power - our ability to capture and manipulate space and time through cameras. What this inevitably, and obviously, leads to is people capturing and projecting sexuality, violence and other controversial pockets of human imagination.
However, when you look through human history, there has always been a counter to freedom and power - often in the form of religion and/or government. In such, whenever organisations attempt to control people, there is almost always some form of censorship and restriction on natural inclinations - whether they be sexual, scientific or violent. This regulation and restriction can sometimes be a good thing, I don't think we want to bring gladiators back into the colosseums in place of MMA, but censorship often exists in some place on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is what we saw develop over the early decades of cinema.
One of the first films ever to be censored was Georges Méliès', The Dreyfus Affair in 1899. Because this series of shorts depicted the infamously controversial case of Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of treason, it was banned in France. Other controversial films around this period would have of course been The Kiss by Edison's manufacturing company. But, in America, the first major act of censorship came in 1915 with an infamous court case: Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. In the simplest terms, this court case was about cinema as a medium of free speech and the supreme court ultimately denied films this right to be protected by the First Amendment as they were seen to be mere spectacles - not art.
Keeping things brief, the government never had to then police films directly following this case, instead, the film industry agreed to self-censor. And so, over the next decade or so, standards and production codes where put in place and began to be enforced. It was then in 1922 that the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was set up, and it was their job to control, aid and regulate the outputs of studios as well as distributors and cinemas. They came under increasing pressure throughout the 20s by religious groups demanding they better control the content of films and so, in 1930, the first set of Production Codes where officially drawn up.
It wasn't until 1934, however, that these codes were strongly regulated by the newly formed Production Code Administration. And it's from this point on that the MPPDA's codes, often referred to as the Hays Code as he was the leader of the MPPDA at the time, were rigidly enforced. This code was initially made up of the famous "don'ts" and "be carefuls" which were primarily proposed in 1927. A few dont's are as follows...
- Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)
- Ridicule of the clergy
And a few be carefuls are...
- The use of firearms
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron)
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue
- Rape or attempted rape
- Man and woman in bed together
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
Because these guidelines, as written up in 1927, where not properly enforced until 1934, we have the outline of the pre-code era. So, whilst the films in this period were not entirely free and explicit - there are no examples (that I know of) of blood, guts, stabbings, penetration and full nudity in Hollywood movies - pre-code pictures were very clearly liberated from these rules. This era is then one of two highly liberated periods of American cinema - the second being in the late 60s with the The Golden Age of Porn. So, just as you may question what the modern world would look like if porn films weren't banned for profanity in the early 70s, instead, considered free speech and/or art, you may also question what the world would look like if pre-code Hollywood was allowed to evolve freely.
This is ultimately what our film for today best represents. When you watch Her Man, with its controversial subject matter and tremendous fight scene, you can't help but wonder what would be in the cinemas over 85 years later if this was allowed to become the norm. And it's this thought that I'll leave you with. Have you seen Her Man? And what do you think the world would look like if the pre-code era lasted through Hollywood's Golden Age?
End Of The Week Shorts #9
Monsters, Inc. - Parenting
More from me: