All posts filed under: Issue 4

Screen Culture Journal Issue 4 – 2018

Queer Christina: The Representation of LGBT Characters in Pre-Code Era Films

Historically, the representation of queer characters in film and onscreen is very poor. They are often one-dimensional stereotypes portrayed through gender inversions — the gay “pansy” or the “butch” lesbian. Despite the presence of LGBT persons in front of and behind the camera, showing homosexual characters in the early years of Hollywood “in anything but a degrading comic light” was “extremely rare.”[1] Queer characteristics were also often applied to the villains or monsters of early and classical Hollywood cinema to represent evil.[2] These demeaning representations lessened as Hollywood entered the pre-Code era. Homosexual and queer filmmakers and stars, such as Marlene Dietrich and arguably Greta Garbo, rose to fame, and studios grew more daring in the face of censorship, testing how far they could push the Production Code Administration and Studio Relations Committee in regards to the screen-time of banned topics. Although the Code prohibited “sex perversion,” which mainly concerned homosexuality, queer characters still appeared in pre-Code era films with alarming explicitness, growing less one-dimensional and more prominent, as particularly demonstrated in Morocco (1930), Queen …

Real Monsters and Real Disgust: Comparing Reception of “Freaks” and “Frankenstein”

INTRODUCTION              Scholarship surrounding Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) mostly includes discussion about public perception of disability. This discussion is certainly warranted, but I am hesitant to place sole responsibility for the film’s poor reception on said perception. Indeed, to place such emphasis on viewer attitudes about disability is to ignore systematic exploitation and “othering” of disabled people on behalf of MGM and the film itself. Therefore, with this essay I aim to provide a more complete historical analysis. I cannot claim to provide a complete historical analysis, because it is probably contentious to claim whether any historical analysis is fully complete. Nonetheless, I hope this essay suffices to make the point that discussing the 1930s attitude about disability is not enough when doing this reception study. I make this point by referencing a few different historical elements. Firstly, I raise James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) as a foil case because both films were characterized as “gruesome” the PCA files, and because they both have similar themes about ‘who the real monster is.’ Secondly, I compare the …

The “Utterly Impossible” Story of ‘Blonde Venus’

“As soon as you stopped singing and started luring men into the bedroom, that’s when the moral outrage would kick in.”[1] This quote sums it up best when referring to the 1932 pre-Code film, Blonde Venus[2]. Starring Marlene Dietrich, and directed by one of Dietrich’s biggest collaborators, Josef von Sternberg[3], Blonde Venus was set to be another hit. While production was scheduled to start on April 4, 1932, Paramount Pictures and the censors had many difficulties coming to agreements on the film, so production was pushed way back, with the film not being released until September 16, 1932. Being the pre-Code era, censors were not enforcing their rules quite as strictly as they did after 1934, but that did not stop them from trying hard to change this film, or not have it made at all. Looking into the Production Code Administration files[4] for Blonde Venus, there was much back and forth between Paramount Pictures, the censors, etc. In a letter addressed to Mr. Will H. Hays, the head of the Code, Jason S. Joy, …

Scene Analysis: Subversion of Gender Roles in “The Double Life of Veronique”

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique is remarkably unique in the way that it flips the power balance between men and women. This is most notable in the marionette scene. About half an hour into the film Veronique and her students watch a puppet show about a ballerina who breaks her leg the first time she performs. This scene is the first time Veronique sees Alexandre, the puppeteer and children’s book author. Though this sequence is only about three minutes long, the comprising shots reveal quite a bit about male and female roles in the film. By utilizing contrasting closeups and medium shots, Kieslowski reverses the typical roles of men and women in film. In Laura Mulvey’s, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” she introduces the concept of the male gaze. This idea suggests that women in film are typically shot in such a way that the males in the film as well as the audience can derive pleasure from looking at them. She argues that narrative cinema is shaped by an inequality between genders …

The Rise of Movie Palaces During the Silent Era

Following the rise of the film industry in the early twentieth century, the Movie Palace became the primary manner in which motion pictures were showcased. Several factors, most notably America’s booming economy and heavy investments in the film industry, led to the rise of the Movie Palace. These were more than just buildings that presented films; they were designed in ways to attract large audiences who could enjoy a night of elegance away from their realities and could make going to the movies a remarkable event. The Movie Palace era is thought to have started with the opening of the Regent in New York in 1913, and lasted until around 1930, with its peak being in 1920.[1] However, before the introduction of the Movie Palace, the very first type of film exhibition was the Nickelodeon, which was a small viewing house that showed short films for only a nickel per admission. Nickelodeons were an extremely popular form of entertainment from 1905 to around 1912,[2] and attracted nearly twenty percent of the nation’s population at its …

Is Detroit a Cinema Desert?

Detroit is an underserved city for film exhibition, specifically first-run theaters. This lack of theaters in Detroit is largely due to suburban fears multiplied by poor media representation. As a historically segregated city, the overall absence of theaters serves to further stratify Detroit across racial lines and disenfranchise black Detroit residents. Not only is film exhibition underserved in the physical space of Detroit, but also in the academic space. There are no studies of modern Detroit film exhibition, and few studies of past exhibition. All studies on film exhibition in Detroit are centered around specific movie palaces of the early 20th century.[i] For other cities, modern film exhibition is also a neglected topic, with no available studies on movie theaters in modern American cities. Without a library of literature to refer to, I rely instead on related conceptual ideas, particularly sociological theory, to investigate Detroit’s cinema landscape. Important to my argument are three central theoretical concepts: multiplexes as suburban fear avoidance, cultural/economic/social capital exchange, and consumption practices as identity. German sociologist Ulrich Beck theorized that …

Love, Money, and An Unnamed Procedure: Frank Borzage’s “Bad Girl”

There is a sweetly comic tension running through Frank Borzage’s romantic comedy-melodrama Bad Girl (1931) that arises from trying to discern how we are to regard the lower-class New York City couple at its center. Adapted from a 1928 novel by Vina Delmar, and a 1930 play by Delmar and Brian Marlowe, Bad Girl follows Dotty (played by Sally Eilers) and Eddie (played by James Dunn), who rush to marriage, move into a too-expensive building, and nervously await the birth of their not-all-that-wanted child. This tension extends to the title of the film itself. Dotty, a shop model, is introduced in an idealized situation in which she models a wedding dress — only to be leered at by male customers. She lives with her paternalistic and abusive older brother, Jim, who warns her of becoming a “bad girl” after she stays out late with Eddie and decides to marry him (as means to avoid Jim’s violent punishment which she has endured before, or perhaps, Borzage tentatively suggests, because she might just love Eddie). Eddie works …

Hitchcock: Depicting Homosexuality in “Rope”

  Shot Shot Description 00:00 Screenshot         1a CU       Opening image. Philip strangles David with a rope while Brandon holds David.         2:49                      1b MS       Brandon checks for David’s heartbeat to make sure he’s dead. Shocked Philip watches.         3:00           1c MS       Brandon commands Philip to open the trunk. They place David’s body inside.         3:09         1d MS       Brandon and Philip close the trunk. They both breath heavily for a few moments.         3:21           1e MS       Brandon turns on the light. Philip tells him not to, that he wants to “stay this way for awhile.”         3:38           1f MS       Brandon lights a cigarette and blows a cloud of smoke.         4:07   …

Bette Davis: Commodifying the Feminine

Hollywood has always been a business, and for most studios in the early 20th century their main profit drivers were the men and women who brought films to life on screen: the actor. In the days of early silent films, actors were largely anonymous thanks to the scattered system of film distribution that was in place at the nascence of film as a media industry. Once audiences began to recognize actors in different roles from film to film, studios began to realize that the recognition of stars by audiences could be used to market films to audiences. Thus, star images became one of the most useful and effective tools studios could use to market their products. By the time Bette Davis came to prominence at Warner Bros., the studio already had a system in place for the promotion and maintenance of their own stars through star images and star personas.[1] Star images tended to follow a set trajectory depending on whether or not the actor was male or female; in the studios’ eyes, it was …

The Star Image of Gene Kelly

Whenever the topic of film musicals is discussed, many famous stars are remembered. The late 1940s to the 1950s was a period that involved a number of unique and talented performers, whether they were actors, singers, dancers, or possibly all of the above. Gene Kelly, a master of all three, was one of the most prominent stars during this time. Kelly, although recognized today as one of the greats, reached the height of his career during the early 1950s with the releases of his films, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1950s, the film musical genre was reaching the end of its life. While Kelly continued to make films after the 1950s, nothing ever came close to the spectacle that was these two masterpieces. Even still, Gene Kelly danced and sang his way into people’s hearts and created an illustrious career and legacy that will continue to live on. Gene Kelly began dancing at a very young age and by the time he was a teenager, …