The Grapefruit Years – Pre-Code Hollywood at the Austrian Film Museum

Walking around in my room singing about how much in the money I am and imagining I’m Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde doing just about the same after having seen The Gold Diggers of 1933 (in a bra. and some coins. looking substantially different than me while at it)  must have been a bad idea. It was then that it occurred to me that instead of choosing any of the more reasonable and potentially fruitful ways of approaching the Pre-Code Hollywood films (all produced by Warner Brothers) which screened at the Austrian Film Museum (on 34 days – I counted them in the hope that I’ll turn up with 33 and discover a hidden homage to the gold diggers), I might as well pick the grapefruit. The reasons why this films might very well qualify as grapefruity multiplied in my mind [in a way it was it was like after the Animals retrospective at Viennale – after attending it, one starts noticing that there are peculiarly many films dealing with ways in which to trap birds out there. out where?]. Thinking about how some of the great con-man characters would react if I were to pitch my idea to them encouraged me. One can hardly imagine rubber-made-out-of-sewage-and-presented-as-gold selling William Powell (as Gar Evans in High Pressure) objecting to it, nor James Cagney, in almost every other role from the ten one could see him play during the retrospective [both of them fantastic, yet none of them in the same league as Gaston Monescu, my absolute favorite]. On second thought, the chances of him reacting by smashing half a grapefruit in my face are not that slim.cagney

As it happens, this is the first and most obvious reason why Pre-Code Hollywood is grapefruity. The grapefruit had a thing for James Cagney and, in Pre-Code, Cagney was a big thing. As far as I know, they starred together in only two films.  In William A. Wellman’s wonderful The Public Enemy Cagney smashes half a grapefruit into his annoying girlfriend’s face. Two years later, Grapefruit(s) and Cagney once again put on a great act together, in Mervyn LeRoys Hard to Handle (the kids watch it at the cinema in Wild Boys of the Road). In an attempt to earn money, Cagney sells shares in an unprofitable grapefruit farm by advertising that the fruit is of great help if trying to lose weight. The entire nation goes on an eighteen day grapefruit diet – a joke as bittersweet as the grapefruit’s taste. One encounters many of that sort when watching Pre-Code films – they concern the Great Depression.

That is also one of the reasons why Pre-Code films are grapefruity. They were made during and (many of them) deal with the Depression. The mixture of – looking at it now – increased freedom of expression (blunt way to put it, there either is freedom or not) and the burden of the Depression lets them appear, at the same time, bitter and sweet. As is often the case with grapefruits, the proportion of bitter/sweet largely varies in these films. A misleading first glance might leave the impression that the (Busby) Berkeleys carry a bigger share of sweetness and the (William A.) Wellmans a bigger share of bitterness. Yet the strong contrast between highest-class entertainment and harsh times lets the Berkeleys (it is not unintentionally that I skip naming his co-directors) easily slip to the bitterest end of the scale. [This is not to say that it is this aspect that I find most fascinating about The Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street andFootlight Parade, the three which were shown. Busby Berkely is an enormous topic, one that I will not manage to discuss here.] Setting poles is, of course, futile. It appears to me that there is a resemblance between the way in which Berkeley deals with masses and the way in which the regime (perhaps) is (indirectly) shown to ill-treat them in Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road.



Maltreatment is a cue to another grapefruity aspect of these films. They seem to abound with workaholics characters that easily cross the boundary to tyranny, their behavior getting as bitter as it is sweet to watch them. Just to name a few – Warren William as a very bossy boss in Employees’ Entrance, Ruth Chatterton as a big company owner in Female, dismissing admirers for the sake of her career (yes, females were something else before the Code, though many of the characters eventually convert) and Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper man in Five Star Final, reflecting on the lengths to which his industry (indirectly perhaps also the film industry) would go in order to keep audiences entertained. Overall, characters in Pre-Code are grapefruity; not plain bitter, not plain sweet. In The Public Enemy, the grapefruit has a thing for James Cagney and James Cagney, as Tom Power, seems to have a thing for his friend Matt. That an aspect as unclear as the grapefruit’s taste varying, which probably would not have passed the code.

Ultimately, the Pre-Code films that screened at the Austrian Film Museum are grapefruity because one can plainly see that grapefruits were the ultimate trend in matter of eye size. It is not yet very visible that Bette Davies has them, but one can certainly see that Joan Blondell has eyes the size of grapefruits.

Which brings me back to Busby Berkeley and to The Gold Diggers of 1933. Its ending, to “Remember my forgotten man”, is one of the most beautiful things I was able to (re)watch during the retrospective. Alongside it – Regis Toomey as a blind man walking through the rain towards the railway, the image out of focus in Other Men’s Women, the smoky disjointedness of The Public Enemy and quite a big chunk of everything else. I hope I made it snappy.

(originally published  Jugend ohne Film 23.06.2016)

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