A friend sent me a library discard chiefly
because she thought I would be interested in its cover of Clark Gable, for Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the
Birth of the Modern Man
, and the
Birth of the Modern Man
, by Mick LasSalle. The book
was published in 2002, and is available now only on Kindle, although there are
probably numerous scores of hard copies and paperbacks of it that can be had for
a song from various Amazon associated vendors.

The
cover is definitely interesting. The non-mustachioed Gable could very well be
cast as Cyrus
Skeen
, the hero of my private detective series set in San Francisco between
1928 and 1930. The only thing missing from Gable’s arresting and commanding
gaze is the lock of hair that often falls over Skeen’s brow and which his wife,
Dilys, is forever flicking away. Skeen’s ears, however, would be a mite
smaller.
One of
the most memorable contrasts LaSalle marks is the on-screen rivalry between
Gable and Leslie Howard, who both appeared in “Gone With the Wind” and “A Free
Soul” (1931). Howard is steamrolled by Gable over a woman. But Gable “had a way
of making any man in the vicinity look like he should be wearing a dress.”
(p.65) One look at Gable, and you know he’s not “transgender” material. He’d
more likely clean your clock if you ever questioned his virility or his
identity as a man.
LaSalle’s
book is also interesting in that it paints a picture of the changing status and
character of male characters in Hollywood between 1929 and 1934, the Pre-Code era, after
which the Hays Office of “voluntary” censorship put the kibosh on “immorality.”
Will Hays and his mostly Catholic and Presbyterian allies put visual and vocal
fig leaves on men and woman.  There is a
political stance in LaSalle’s book but it is difficult to nail down; he
implicitly endorses from the right, from the left, and from the middle, and he applauds
every position imaginable, as well as the stances taken by the stars he
discusses.
LaSalle
reviews and critiques with lucid and often biting retrospect the careers of
such memorable and forgotten Pre-Code
stars as Lon Chaney, Ramon Navarro, Richard Barthelmess, Edward G. Robinson,
Clark Gable, James Cagney, Robert Montgomery, John and Lionel Barrymore,
Charles Laughton, Gary Cooper, Warren William, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks,
Jr. and Sr., Lee Tracy, Paul Muni, and Fredric March.
But his
principal position is stated about halfway into Dangerous Men:
More than anything else, the
movies of the time emphasized the primacy of the individual and the importance
of individual concerns, treating the government as a malign, or at best neutral
force. Shady characters, sly operators, and fast-talking con men were often
heroes, if for no other reason but that they were individualists making their
way in the world. Meanwhile, anyone representing organized power, such as business
or government, was part of the problem. That’s why private detectives were
almost always good guys, while policemen were usually nuisances. (p. 106)
The
onset of the Great Depression in 1929 helped to promote this narrative even on
through World War II and in our own time. But the “individualism” of which
LaSalle speaks has morphed into a mentally ill kind of narcissism highlighted
by “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” These certainly had not been invented
in 2002, when Dangerous Men was
originally published. But try to imagine actors of the caliber, presence, and
rough-and-ready style as Cagney, Robinson, Gable, or William whining about
having their safe spaces violated or requiring trigger warnings before some
actress began vamping them and showing them her legs. It would be too hilarious
for words. The contrast would be so violent that it would send any contemporary
social justice warrior into frothing, white-knuckled paroxyms of anger and
outrage. Oh, the insensitivity!
How did
the Production Code Administration, the enforcement arm of the Motion Picture
Producers and Distributors of America (MPPA),
come about? Through a little judicious arm-twisting and the appeal to some
“higher” moral standard – that is, the altruist, selfless brand.
…It was a result of the
well-organized effort by a small cabal of lay Catholics, who, working within
the church and the film industry, threatened the studios with a loss of
Catholic business if certain demands weren’t met.
Caving into pressure, the
studios appointed publicity man Joseph Breen as the first
head of the Production Code Administration, a new organization empowered with
the right to approve or deny the release of any studio film. As of July 1,
1934, Breen, a political reactionary and a raging anti-Semite, became the final
arbiter of screen content. He kept the job for nearly two decades. (p. xii)
It
didn’t hurt that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, with his
promise to “remake” the country as a welfare state with a population of hound-dog
faced dependents, in much the same manner as Barack Obama promised to “remake”
the country in order to “transform” its political, economic, and demographics
to something far more compatible with collectivism than FDR could ever have
imagined.

“Dangerous”
film censor Joseph Breen


Another
contrast, La Salle writes, is in the difference between most of the silent
films and the Pre-Code films. In Chapter 1, “Why Are These Men Smiling?” he
notes that:
The smiles of the silent heroes
suggested a whole attitude toward life, a confidence about the nature of
heroism and the ultimate forces of good and evil. Silent heroes not only
believed their victories were inevitable, but when they did win, they felt sure
enough to gloat a little. They did not go through life expecting the ground to
shift beneath their feet…. (p. 2)
But
LaSalle prefaced that observation with:
In the Pre-Code era, we find
new-fashioned heroes whose manhood was an authoritative force – not pretty
boys, not cannon fodder, not pawns of the system, but dangerous men. Together,
they represent a vision of manhood more exuberant and contentious, and at the
same time more humane, than anything that has followed on the American screen.
(p. xiii)
LaSalle
dwells on the importance of “irony” in Pre-Code films, a “virtue” hardly lost
in today’s film fare.
The great silent heroes of the
twenties, stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro,
and John Gilbert, were hardly sober men of affairs. They projected the modish
virtues: youth, confidence, physical beauty, dynamism, and personality. What
they…lack was irony. As historian Paul Fussell has asserted, irony was the
great and defining legacy of World War I. That modern sense of irony, seeping
into the culture as the twenties progressed, would ultimately make the silent
hero and his radiantly unshakeable smile seem old-fashioned indeed. (p. 4)
Irony,
in this cinematic context, I take LaSalle to mean that if the “hero” does not
laugh at himself for being a “hero,” then the audience will laugh at him. Or
take him with a grain of salt. Or the critics will. As a rule, critics have
always laid on the internal and external irony super-thick, even when praising
films they have liked.
Carole Lombard as Dilys Skeen

The
dangerous men of the Pre-Code era, however, were not “heroes,” strictly
speaking; they were thugs, gangsters, con men, cheats, a menagerie of ambiguous
moralists, and a variety of Don Juans who treated women like discarded Kleenex
and their victims as marks, patsies, and suckers. They were not of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged caliber. In Western culture, true individualism had
never found a voice until the novels of Ayn Rand. The Pre-Code “heroes,”
however well they were played, were still the non-productive, essentially
parasitical dross of society.

(Gary Cooper’s old-fashioned
heroism was more suited to the Code era than to the Pre-Code era. He thrived in
the late thirties, forties, and fifties, making many signature films, including
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” [1936], “Meet John Doe” [1941], and “High Noon” [1952].
He died in 1961, at age sixty. P. 213)
Left
out of this sampling of Cooper’s films are “The
Fountainhead
” (1949) and “For
Whom the Bell Tolls
” (1943).
Now
that there is no enforceable Code, no powerful censor to play Bowdler to
Breen’s latent prurience, the ground keeps shifting under the feet of our
culture’s purported “heroes.” It’s deuces wild.  Anything goes. The Production Code was never
truly enforced. It more or less lapsed into irrelevancy in the 1940’s, and the MPAA
(the Motion Picture Association of America) formally abandoned the Code in
1966, replacing its bizarre guidelines with a wholly arbitrary “rating” system
whose center of gravity seems to revolve around the definition of “mature.” 
However,
I can see it now. Were some director to decide to produce Civic Affairs, and talked about the script with Clark Gable, Gable
would laugh and say, “Hey. I like this scene. I get to kick this Breen
character in the pants. That’ll be fun to shoot! Can we get Jimmy Stewart? And who’s
playing Skeen’s wife? I could really work with Carole Lombard! She’s a lot of
fun!”
Dangerous
Men: Pre-Code Hollywood
and the Birth of the Modern Man
, by
Mick LaSalle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. 273 pp.