Judge Gordon Sullivan always thought pre-Code films were done in pig Latin.
"Some of the most decadent and intriguing filmmaking ever to hit the screen."
Talking movies are dangerous! Or at least that's the obvious conclusion to come to looking at the history of the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code). A kind of self-censorship arm of Hollywood, the Code was a set of guidelines created in 1930 (just as sound was gaining momentum) for filmmakers to follow (not unlike our current MPAA system). In reality, silent films were dangerous, too, and the Code was developed to keep government censors off Hollywood's back after numerous clashes with state authorities over risqué material. Despite the fact that the Code was created in 1930, sex sells, so the Code was not actively enforced until 1934. This gave film history four years where directors could (and did!) test the limits of what kinds of "hot" material could be put on the screen. This set collects a pair of pre-Code features (as they came to be called), and although they're both slight films, they offer an interesting peek into the first half of the twentieth century's sexual mores.
• The Song of Songs was the first Hollywood film Marlene Dietrich made without Joseph Von Sternberg, and it tells the story of a naïve young woman who comes to the big city (in this case, Berlin). There, she lives with her overbearing aunt, working in her bookshop. There, she meets a sculpture (Brian Aherne, Sylvia Scarlett), who must make a nude statue of the young woman immediately. Though she seems to fall for the handsome artist, it's his patron that she eventually marries, the rich Baron von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill, Captain Blood). Love and society collide as our heroine learns the ways of the world.
• This is the Night is notable for being the feature film debut of a young Cary Grant, and it tells the story of a young millionaire (Roland Young) who fancies a married woman (Thelma Todd). The young millionaire hires a woman (Lily Damita) to pretend to be his wife to fool the married woman's husband (Cary Grant). What follows is a romantic mixup of epic proportions.
Quite frankly, I'm amazed Marlene Dietrich had a career after the Code was put into full effect. So much of her screen presence is predicated on sexual provocation and her strong sense of independence that I'm amazed her very presence in front of the camera wasn't deemed a moral corruption (and this, of course, is meant as high praise). The Song of Songs plays out one of several archetypal stories that Dietrich would be involved in, where she must go from immature waif to cold and calculating woman; it was done to full effect in The Scarlett Empress. Here, the plot seems to revolve as much as possible around Dietrich being naked. Of course she can't actually be naked, so we see a few scenes of her taking off her nine petticoats and posing for a statue. That statue, however, is of a fully naked Marlene Dietrich, and it's obvious that between the marble of the statue and its religious title (which it shares with the movie itself), the filmmakers thought they could get away with what amounts to a naked Dietrich on screen. This playful attempt at nudity is the highlight of the film, which is otherwise a tired rehearsal of the usual "good girl corrupted by the big city" story. Not even excellent performances from the leads can save this film from mediocrity.
In our age of 50/50 marriage odds, it can hard to see why This is the Night wouldn't have passed muster with the Hays office, but the fact that the plot centers around a man trying to break up a marriage, and hiring a woman to do it smacks of a scandalous immorality for the time. No matter how much it may happen in real life, adultery on the screen was a bit much. Sadly, the film offends now not because of the adultery but because it can't muster an original moment to put on the screen. The whole film plays like a ripoff of Ernst Lubitsch's comedies of the period, with fast-paced farce and odd musical elements. Things begin and end predictably, and were it not for Cary Grant's later films, no one would remember This is Tonight.
These films have been packaged on separate DVDs in a single-width case, and they look okay for films of the period that haven't been treated to lavish restoration. The Song of Songs looks slightly better, with a bit more detail, less damage, and more consistent black levels. This is Tonight suffers from its age, with a bit of flicker and print damage, though it is still quite watchable. The mono soundtracks of both are preserved as well as can be expected for eighty-year-old films. For extras, both films get a short introduction from TCM host Ben Mankeiwicz, who explains a little bit of the history behind each film. Both discs also get a set of promotional galleries that includes things like lobby cards and posters.
The Song of Songs is for hardcore Dietrich fans only (apparently she herself didn't like the picture much), while This is Tonight will be of interest only to true Cary Grant fans who must see everything he's ever been in. Otherwise, even those who enjoy early talkies will likely find little of interest here.
Despite some "morally questionable" storylines, this Pre-Code Double Feature is not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, This Is The Night
Perp Profile, This Is The Night
Studio: TCM Vault
Distinguishing Marks, This Is The Night
Scales of Justice, The Song Of Songs
Perp Profile, The Song Of Songs
Studio: TCM Vault
Distinguishing Marks, The Song Of Songs
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.