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[whitespace] 'Sin in Soft Focus' Naughty, Gaudy, Bawdy & Sporty

Shadows of forgotten spice girls stain the coffeetable in Mark Vieira's 'Sin in Soft Focus'

By Edward E. Crouse

A more accurate word for "pre-code" movies would be "pre-clampdown." By July 1934, responding to pressure from what dissolute screenwriter Ben Hecht called "churches and civic leagues still stand [ing] guard against the art of the underpants," Hollywood agreed to a program of Catholic censorship led by Joseph Breen, a staunch, starchy body. For nearly four years, the movie capital had alternately mouthed and ignored the provisions of the 1930 code, particularly its list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls": VD, ridiculing religion, seduction, rape, depictions of theft or murder, gruesomeness, men and women in bed together, surgery, drugs, miscegenation and nudity. More than a dollop of the above had been served high and fast, but the clamp on them was strong enough to officially last into the late 1950s and early 1960s. This of course was when Alfred Hitchcock (in a certain shower scene) and Otto Preminger (by using the word "virgin" onscreen) began to violate the Catholic Legion of Decency standards.

Mark Vieira's glitzy new book, Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, is generally split along these word-picture lines. While his writing presents a litany of what was cut, muted or altered, the real focus of Sin and its riveting text is the visual. Apolitical and cattily captioned, 275 stills make up a half-arty, sad recollection of a sexually, aesthetically and (sometimes) socially juiced movie era. As an alternate version of the Pledge of Allegiance goes, it can serve "one nation, underpants."

Two problems with the book emerge immediately. First, Vieira's classification of pre-code films as a genre is specious. Technically, any film made in a Hollywood studio between 1930 and 1934 qualifies, and he neatly tries to organize the films along genre lines that hadn't fully congealed at that point in talkie history--a concession, I think, made more for video-store necessity than for any reason of serious scholarship. In this he aligns himself with the likes of bland bums like Leonard Maltin, whose presence in introducing many a pre-code videotape shows off a real feel for dull thought-nuggets (Maltin sample: "Some people would try anything once--from sex ... to suicide). Pre-code is less a genre than a wavering attitude, and can't be compressed any more than the first G, GP or X-rated films can.

Second, the book is hardly a comprehensive look at its subject matter. Sin is a reference book only in the loosest sense of the term: as a catalog of one man's glamour fetish, hardly a surprise coming from the author who indispensably anthologized George Hurrell's Hollywood portraits a few years ago. But a fetish is a fetish, and though it's seductively sure of itself, Sin pales in research and vision when placed alongside Thomas Doherty's exhaustive Pre-Code Hollywood (Columbia University Press, 1999). Vieira's omission of any stills from Freaks (1932), arguably the most important pre-code anomaly, underlines an aesthete temperament.

If Sin in Soft Focus is authoritative, then one is tempted to group it with the unidentified stills in Georges de Coulteray's Sadism in the Movies and Boyd McDonald's critical work in Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on Television (where 90 percent of the talkies' charm is attributed to the "groins and butts of the actors") .

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From the October 25, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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