To celebrate the all-too-short Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censors season at the British Film Institute, today’s post takes a look at a brief rebellious period in film history. When William Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code, was introduced in 1930, Hollywood studios widely ignored his attempt to clean up the film industry. Instead, for nearly five glorious years they produced a dizzying array of weird and wonderful films which still have the capacity to shock today. The collective output of this period would sow the seeds of a great American institution, the creature feature. For those lucky enough to get tickets (it sold out very quickly) the British Film Institute is screening a double bill this evening of Murders in the Zoo (1933) and Island of Lost Souls (1932). This got me thinking about how much we owe to this era of Hollywood.
Without it we may never have had the B-Movie and without B-Movies, there may never have been cult classics. Imagine a film industry robbed of the unique talent and towering contribution of the likes of Roger Corman. The creator of some of the most incredible, ridiculous and at times unbelievable films ever made, but also the mentor to a host of renowned film directors, Corman is a living legend. Chris Nashawaty’s book Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B-Movie (2013) is an incredible experience. Page after page of fascinating insight into Corman’s work is accompanied by the artwork that was used to advertise it. Seeing these posters in a single collection gives you a sense of the scale of his output.
Corman has made more films than most and I could easily fill 1000 words on any one of them. His canon is incredibly rich and films like Women in Cages (1971) with the tagline White Skin on the Black Market, quickly became cult classics on the big screen. The creation of the Syfy cable television channel has provided a more recent home for Corman’s later output in the form of films such as Dinoshark (2010) and Sharktopus (2010). But Corman’s astonishing body of work has its roots in the reaction of film studios to the Hays Code in the 1930s. Tonight’s opening feature, Murders in the Zoo is about as esoteric as it gets. A jealous scientist uses zoo animals to murder his wife’s suitors. I guess if you can live in a world where the Syfy channel can broadcast Chupacabra vs. The Alamo (2013) then you learn to accept the sheer breadth of possibilities that fiction offers, but Murders in the Zoo was made nearly 90 years ago. Not only that, it was produced by Paramount Pictures with A. Edward Sutherland at the directing helm. Sutherland was no amateur. He was an established actor having made his name as a Keystone Cop in the silent movie era. He had been directed by the great Charlie Chaplin in A Woman of Paris (1923) and would go on to direct the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Mae West, Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, and W.C. Fields. Hardly B-Movie fodder is it?
What the Hays Code sought to protect society from (nudity, homosexuality, adultery, murderous zoo animals) was precisely what the Hollywood studios offered up. For rebellious filmmakers, the code became a checklist of things to include, of things that for a few glorious years audiences flocked towards. Hollywood had struck the mother lode and the daring intensity of the early 1930s would not be seen again until the 1960s when the code was abandoned. Until then Hays’ restrictions held firm and studios were forced to comply. When this happened the American hardboiled detective genre took off. Unshackled by a code, literary fiction in either book or pulp magazine form gave film audiences exactly what they had been used to on the silver screen. When Hollywood complied, audiences took solace in bent cops, heavy-drinking private investigators and the odd femme fatale. Tonight, the British Film Institute celebrates two incredible examples of what audiences missed out on during the code’s existence. It is thanks to films like these that later creature features exist. When studios began making these types of films again in the 1960s there was an atavistic joy in returning to such a successful formula.
The formula for an early creature feature is quite simple. You need a deserted island (preferably in the South Sea) on which a borderline-mad scientist has secretly been conducting experiments on animals. You’ll then need a storm which causes a boatload of young, attractive and fatally curious visitors to be washed ashore. Several of these visitors will die (sad but necessary), either murdered by the scientist or by one of the creatures he has created. The rest of the group will in turn murder the scientist before escaping on a boat as the island is destroyed by flames. This is the basic premise and you can adapt the specifics to suit the need. For example, in the Island of Lost Souls the island’s only female inhabitant is descended from a panther (yes, you read that correctly).
Scoff if you will, but the next time you see an advert for a creature feature, just remember that its origins are from one of the most creative and anarchical periods in film industry history. These films are permanent reminders of the need to tell stories. Attempt to shackle the storyteller and the story will go underground, and rebel. Celebrate it, give it a budget and a genius like Roger Corman or A. Edward Sutherland and you have something extraordinary. Tonight’s double bill is a lesson for those who judge art in terms of awards, critical integrity or hidden meaning, the subtlety of expression and tone and, dare I say it, quality. I wonder how many people, if tonight’s double bill were on television, perhaps on the Syfy channel, would turn over? But because the British Film Institute has created a season to celebrate this period in Hollywood history then they hypocritically believe this somehow gives it worth. Films that form part of this season may never win awards, but they are examples of film making at its bravest. Deliberate, obvious and calculated efforts to pour scorn and ridicule on misguided attempts to stifle genuine storytelling.
Take a bow Panther Woman. We owe you a great deal. Without you, we may not have had hardboiled detective fiction and creature features. Actually, take a bow Mr Hays…ironically this is your triumph.